This post is co-authored by Karin Wulf and Seth Denbo, Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives for the American Historical Association

In a Scholarly Kitchen post earlier this week, Lisa Hinchliffe summarized some basic themes in the thousands of pages of responses to Plan S. One of her six themes was the STEM-centric features of Plan S, and the problems it poses for humanists. We wanted to explore this in greater detail, historians that we are, by looking to the recent history of the historical discipline’s engagement with open access (OA) policies. Of course this doesn’t represent the view of all historians, who may have diverging individual perspectives. We take a close look at some of the themes that have been sounded by disciplinary organizations over the past decade, both to offer our colleagues in scholarly communications who are thinking about the features and implications of Plan S some greater insight, but also to offer colleagues in history a purchase on what might seem like abstract, distant or irrelevant debates.

antique keys and locks

Let’s start, though, by noting some of the common ground that may get lost in the debates. Concern for the specific requirements of Plan S, like reactions to the Finch Report, or HEFCE’s REF policies, tends to obscure the very real and deep commitment to openness and accessibility among historians. Indeed it is one of the most frustrating dimensions of these policies that they become so divisive, rather than seeking common ground. If we could start some of these OA discussions with a real commitment to respecting one another’s experiences, intentions, and situation, and if a truly large scale collaborative approach were sought, we would make enormous gains. Not just for OA, but because in a time when scholarship, from science to history, is so crucial, more cross-sector understanding and support that might truly make more and better scholarship available seems to us to be vital.

“Open Access” is a term that has come to mean a set of policies about publishing, archiving, and disseminating scholarship. It’s not a bad idea to read the Wikipedia entry, if only to grasp that there is a longer history here than we’re able to tell, and also to see how OA can be summarized, even while there are sharply divergent views about features of OA. OA is generally understood as part of a larger movement to make scientific research more easily, publicly available. And a frustration with the very high cost of largely commercially published, largely STEM journal publication fueled librarians’ enthusiastic commitment to OA. The Berlin Declaration of 2003 lays out the basic components of OA:  

“Open access contributions must satisfy two conditions:The author(s) and right holder(s) of such contributions grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship (community standards, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now), as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.

A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in an appropriate standard electronic format is deposited (and thus published) in at least one online repository using suitable technical standards (such as the Open Archive definitions) that is supported and maintained by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, inter operability, and long-term archiving.”

The two fundamental features of the Berlin Declaration, therefore, are free use/reuse and deposit. Obviously, a desire for access to research and the very specific proposals for OA are part of much larger forces in the global economy, the information economy, the sectors for higher education, and scholarly communications, and the place where the budgets of those latter two meet on the ground of publication costs, which is libraries. But the changes in the landscape of research, higher education funding, and technology (in all sectors, including publishing) have changed the way in which these two fundamental features of the Berlin Declaration could be realized. And, crucially, the ways in which these features have been realized–in fact monetized — by the largest commercial publishers have further frustrated some of the idealistic as well as pragmatic concerns that originally fueled OA.  

A series of policies, notably for the purposes of our post, non-mandatory policies adopted by US faculty governance bodies, and mandatory policies created by centralized UK higher education administrative bodies, have provoked increasingly concerned reactions from historians. These policies prescribe to varying degrees the kinds of journals in which scholars may publish based on how well they accord with the principles of OA. Is the journal supported by subscriptions (a barrier to readership), or by Article Processing Charges (APCs), paid by or paid on behalf of the author? Is the journal or book free to read online immediately upon publication, or is there an embargo to allow for a period of subscription revenue? Is the research published without copyright, using a Creative Commons or other license that establishes reuse and derivative use? Is an early or final published version of the author’s research deposited either in their home institution’s library or elsewhere? In the case of UK policies adopted in the wake of the Finch Report (2012), an effort to assess and prescribe a path to making scholarship freely accessible to read, we point colleagues to a series of briefings from the Royal Historical Society (RHS) which were and are applicable to the particular requirements UK academics face, but which also have included essential background and even glossaries concerning OA.   

Then just this last year Plan S was announced, a mandate not from governments or higher education institutions, but from a group of funders, requiring their grant recipients to publish under specific, rigid conditions. Last week collectives of both UK- and US-based history journal editors and leading organizations issued letters of concern about Plan S. If you’re new to Plan S, a number of Scholarly Kitchen posts, including yesterday’s, have discussed its scope and details. Angela Cochran’s post is a good place to start, and includes key links. Another place to start is the Coalition S page on implementation and the feedback period, which ended February 8. The UK journal editors’ letter is posted on the website of Past and Present here. The American Historical Association (AHA) letter is here. We also recommend the substantial and important work of our colleagues at the RHS in their interim report and formal response to Plan S, “The View from History.”

What could be possibly be objectionable about openness and accessibility? The conversations we’ve been part of since 2012 generally start by asserting that openness has value, and few historians would dispute the merits of reaching broad audiences. However, many mandates — including those that arose from the conclusions of the Finch report — were explicitly designed to solve problems in scientific publishing. Thus, throughout the history of OA mandates, historians and other humanists have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the ways in which funding of research and modes of scholarly communication differ from those in the sciences, such as the array of biomedical fields, that have large budgets for major research initiatives. From citation metrics to embargo periods, there are many ways to clearly demonstrate that historical scholarship (likely humanities scholarship, likely lots of scholarship) is simply produced and consumed very differently from the big science models that are driving OA. Historical writing has a much longer half-life than that in many other fields, and in fact can take a period of years to be widely recognized and read. Therefore the application of short embargo periods makes little sense as a way to mitigate the implications of OA on the publisher. This long life for scholarship means that while in the humanities the effectiveness of a journal or publisher is important, there is less focus on measuring numbers of citations in the short term as a means for assessing value. APCs, to take another example, may make sense in the context of publications from the Principal Investigator of a grant-funded lab.

A white paper co-authored by Eric Slauter and Karin Wulf for a 2014 summit of history journal editors on OA begins thus:  “If we could put the fine essays and reviews in the William and Mary Quarterly into the hands of every potential reader around the globe, immediately and without cost, why wouldn’t we want to?” Back then it was a question posed by an OA advocate, and Karin heard a version of the same from a colleague just months ago. This kind of question assumes that if we wanted to do this, we should figure out how to do it. And that is basically the premise on which OA proceeds. But that assumes that free and immediate access for readers is a more important attribute or action than any other. Historians have come up with other answers, including the need for equitable access to publications outlets. Indeed, OA policies would often particularly disadvantage early career or non-affiliated researchers, or any scholar without substantial funder or institutional backing.   

With the publication of its 10 principles, Plan S set out the direction in which funders and policy-makers who have endorsed it are heading, and the range of possibilities for researchers and journals to meet funder expectations has been narrowed significantly. The coordination of responses internationally results from ever greater regulation, which constricts allowable forms of compliance. The codification of a narrow version of OA — the expectation of CC BY licenses, favoring APC-funded publications, the banning of hybrid journals — alarmed a lot of editors of journals and scholarly societies, which led to the collective action and letter writing.

This is the crux of the matter. Rather than being against openness, what concerns many historians who deal with this issue is the narrowness of the definition of “open”. We see five major areas vital to historical scholarly communication, that have been the focus of a number of these responses to mandates over the years, and that will have to be accommodated in any effort at fully multidisciplinary, widely adopted OA:  the role of editing; funding differentials; the distinction between book and journal disciplines; the need for coherence in published work, making necessary a flexible attitude toward OA licenses; and the threat to international collaboration. Every one of these has been covered in depth elsewhere, but in bringing them together in a brief post assaying what seems now like a long history of responding to initiatives designed for other disciplines we are struck anew at the consistency.

Editorial work:

Historians work with words; editing is thus a major rather than a minor part of the production of historical scholarship, and a key piece of the full research cycle. Workshopping a piece of writing typically happens in formal (conference and seminar) as well as informal (reading and writing group) settings, refining an argument through the language that best expresses it. Editing in historical publications encompasses a range of work, including summarizing suggestions for revisions made by peer reviewers, substantive and specialist editorial input, copy editing, and source checking. Review is not a gatekeeping function; it serves to improve scholarship and published work so that it makes the best possible contribution to knowledge. All of this work is vital to the production of high quality history publications, and simply cannot be dispensed with while retaining the integrity of historical knowledge. The RHS briefing paper on OA and the 2027 REF asks “What funding arrangements will guarantee that current standards of peer review and long-form text curation (including series-editing and copy-editing) are maintained?” This is a vital question when attempts are being made to up-end long standing business models that support scholarly publishing in history.


While Plan S does not mandate APCs as the only route to compliance, upfront payments are the principle route. APCs are incredibly rare in any discipline in which scholarship is not funded by large-scale research grants. In 2013 the AHA responded to the growing calls for APC-driven OA with a policy for its journal, the American Historical Review. The AHA’s governing body felt that APCs were unacceptable, in principle as well as in practice. Moving to a pay-to-publish model could compromise peer review, and also exacerbate inequities between independent scholars and faculty. The goal of creating one kind of openness would raise other kinds of barriers, in this case to publication. In history the shift to expectations that scholars or their institutions cover the cost of publication introduces new inequities between faculty and independent or contingent scholars, between scholars at community colleges or HBCUs and research institutions, and between scholars working within and outside the academy. Covering the cost of publication when mandates prevent subscriptions involves trade-offs, and APCs will exclude scholars who are an absolutely vital part of our scholarly communities.

Additionally, the types of funding that supports historical research typically comes from a variety of small grants from different institutions. A piece of research resulting in a specific publication is not a humanities model. Several archival institutions, for example, might fund several weeks of work each for perhaps a couple of thousand dollars, a society might fund a month, possibly a larger institution or even an employer might fund a year of research leave. But by the time a historian has written a book, they might have had a half dozen — or many more — grants of what to other disciplines would look like very small sums. What or which would be the controlling entity in this typical scenario, requiring that the historian meet their publication requirements?

Journals v Books

While journals have been the focus of OA policies, the logical next step would be to require that books as well as journals are open. Like other “book disciplines,” history particular places a heavy emphasis on monograph publication. Funders have tackled this issue as well, but we note that the economics of monographs is very different; nonprofit university presses have had to juggle a difficult balance sheet to provide for the type of editorial work that longform scholarship of this type requires. In short, OA for monographs brings its own complications, some of them magnified versions of journal publication, including the high price tag on “gold” academic book charges, and the potential for excluding worthy scholars and scholarship lacking the means to pay. Experiments in monograph publishing have shown promise, but have been generally quite limited in scope. And while these experiments continue, policies which mandate open access offer no space for them to really bear fruit on the necessary scale.


Certainly, using Creative Common licenses has removed barriers. The ability to freely surrender certain rights to the public has opened up the web and allowed much greater flexibility for sharing work. But mandates by funders have limited the freedom to use various licenses, even while the most open licenses may not be appropriate for historical scholarship. Where arguments are carefully crafted, and without context meaning easily changed or just misconstrued, the integrity of writing needs to be maintained. A worked example in an RHS report shows how the deletion or replacement of just five words changes the meaning of an intensive piece of historical scholarship, from an analysis of slavery to support for a specious argument that there were no enslaved persons in 18th century Britain (a highly politicized issue). Restricting OA to only CC BY licenses, while it allows for reuse in ways that can be beneficial, such as allowing text mining or data collecting, simply has to be at the discretion of the scholar. Funders should understand the implications of insisting on the broadest rights, especially when allowing more restrictive licenses that still support sharing, but ensure editorial integrity, would satisfy the needs of scholars.


Historians work across borders. When national bodies, whether governments or funders, institute policies that affect scholarship, they make international collaborations much more difficult. This point has been made repeatedly, but like the above, bears repeating.

Finally, we have heard the complaints. OA is moving too slowly. A radical approach like Plan S is necessary. But we also hear repeatedly that the real problems are with the same high cost commercial science publications that prompted some of the initial OA advocacy.  We are not taking a position on those business models. Rather, we are pointing out that the long-term commitment of humanities publication, most of it done by non-profits, often by societies, often in the context of other activities that support research and career development — has also been produced in the context of low cost accessibility before OA was a phenomenon.

Stepping back and looking at how historians have responded to OA initiatives suggests how critical it will be for future initiatives to work from the start with a broad coalition of groups across disciplines. It also suggests the key divergences of emphasis, and thus areas where compromise may be achievable. Above all, it suggests how enmeshed in larger assumptions the vocabularies in use around OA can become. Even shared values get obscured in these debates. The unintended consequences of sweeping policies, drafted or instituted without deeper and broader consultation across disciplines and among wider coalitions of stakeholders has been consistently unproductive. The lack of common ground, which hampers forthright discussion, seems to arise from the unwillingness among many involved in these debates to see other routes to openness or other values in the scholarly communication landscape as valid. What would be the result of a genuine congress on access? Bringing scholars, librarians, publishers, and funders from different disciplines and from across the globe together might show where real areas of common purpose and common commitment lie.

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History, Brown University. She is a historian with a research specialty in family, gender and politics in eighteenth-century British America and has experience in non-profit humanities publishing.


17 Thoughts on "A Brief History of History Responding to Open Access"

The UK SCL slavery example is ridiculous. Firstly, science writing involves careful crafting of sentences and description of context – the whole point of an introduction and methods section is to put the results in context.

Secondly, misquoting and cherry picking is permitted under full copyright protection. If someone uses a small portion of text they do not need permission. If they take a quote out of context, you cannot stop them. If they misrepresent what you say or even use a couple of sentences without acknowledgement there is little recourse. Who has the money or time to sue someone over 3 sentences?

The sciences have thousands of CC BY licenced articles out in the world. Yet climate change deniers and anti vaxxers have not taken to circulating distortions of legitimate papers. How could they, when the original full text is so readily available?

This is a very useful summary – but I think it misses one very important point, namely that there is also a significant trade publishing market for history. In the biomedical area, the intellectual property in journal papers has no intrinsic value. This rests in the patents derived from the work and no STEM funder is requiring these to be given away. OA in biomedical publishing is primarily a free gift to the international pharmaceutical industry, which many of us might think could well afford to pay for its own journal subscriptions. It may help the industry to identify potential collaborators and investment targets, so that the authors continue to derive financial benefits from their work. In SSH, the text is the intellectual property. This goes beyond concern about misleading editing, which I blogged about in an early contribution It is the equivalent of the patent, from which authors or content creators may derive, probably modest, financial benefits. OA expropriates these without compensation. Let us not beat about the bush: Plan S and its clones as applied to SSH are legalized theft. They potentially drive a wedge between scholarly and trade publishing, notably in fields like history. The incentive for academic authors to write for a broader market will be significantly reduced. It will also make it difficult to get due credit for their work – it is another free gift but this time to the media industry. OA romantics imagine there is a huge public appetite to read the products of science and scholarship. The experience of Access to Research which offers free read-only access through any UK public library that signs up does not bear this out. The reality is a coterie of generally well-funded interests who will get a free ride on the products of underpaid academic labour.

This is an important point — if you want to spread academic research to the general public, the popular trade book by an academic is one of the best routes. Any system that makes this more difficult is problematic.

Also, for more on this essential divide between STEM and HSS, see this 2013 post:
And we have subsequently revisited it a few times:

Thanks for the important reminder about another aspect of publishing in history. The OA policy emphasis on journals misses so much about being a book discipline (actually, I’d say history is a multi-genre discipline, but for the sake of brief comment here…) one aspect of which is the academic plus trade publisher market for history.

We should not perpetuate the notion that only CC BY allows text mining. This is achievable under Fair Use in the US without CC BY licenses, and, for example, the entire arXiv corpus is available for text mining without a CC BY license. Creative Commons lawyers have also said that the other CC licenses also allow text mining (e.g. even the CC BY ND license allows text mining so long as any derivative is just created for the purpose of the mining operation and is not further distributed). Fair dealing and the UK/European position are a little more complicated but evolving.

I don’t believe that TDM for copyrighted material under the fair use doctrine has been definitively adjudicated.

That article presents an argument (and I am very much not a lawyer), but as Joe notes, I’m not aware of any case that has been brought in court, and my understanding of Fair Use is that nothing can be declared “Fair Use” or “Not Fair Use” without a court making a specific decision on that particular activity. I lean more toward Richard’s take on it, that it would likely be supported, provided that the output is transformative and not just a redistribution of the original material, but I’m not sure one can definitively say that’s the case without a court decision.

This is an important discussion. One other element to note is that many of the major journals in history (and the humanities) have been published by disciplinary associations. Dues for membership of the association include subscription to the journal.
However, if these journals are forced to go OA, one likely outcome is that people won’t join the association – when in many cases these organisations have done important work for scholars for the last century or more.
Many of the complaints about excessive journal subscription fees are about scientific journals, charging thousands. But that’s not the case in history. A subscription to the English Historical Review is £59 for students. The American Historical Review (via AHA membership) is $42 for students. These are very reasonable prices.

Thanks so much, Katrina, and you’re so right about societies. When we talk about “society publishers” it’s difficult to separate out on the scale of these humanities orgs the publishing work from the rest of the way the research cycle is supported by fellowships and conferences for example. Even the cost and “revenues” are difficult to pull out. The small cost has been the route humanities publishers have chosen for a long time to maintain support for the research community on a sustainable basis.

According to the OA advocates any fees are a barrier to the flow of information. Regardless of the group charging a fee and the work they do, it makes no difference. The associations and societies will either charge a fee for membership that covers what they do or they will simply go out of business!

What OA is offering is an onerous increase in the fees to publish witness PLoS increase of 7%!

In the subscription model an editor is given X pages to publish per year. This is a cost and quality control method. OA says do not control pages just publish because articles create revenue. Thus, the AHA is being forced to calculate the number of articles it has to publish per year to cover lost subscription revenue and if it should just let say Oxford publish the Journal for a guaranteed revenue stream of X!

Thank you Karin, Seth. I think a new “congress” on open is a brilliant idea—an opportunity to discuss open uses, needs, and definitions across fields and disciplines. We can chart a more direct course to an open future by agreeing together on the map; and we can greatly expand the terrain of open by comparing maps and coming up with global approaches and best practices. The 3-Bs (the Berlin, Budapest and Bethesda definitions of open) have been important and foundational documents, but they need to be updated. We sometimes defend these documents too fiercely (its a good thing we haven’t similarly defended our circa 2003 definitions of internet, computer, and telephone). How about a 2020 meeting in…Beijing?

Thanks so much for your comment! Mandatory, monolithic won’t work. We were so struck by the volume of responses to Plan S, but then by the care and time and expertise our colleagues have taken over the last years to respond to all of the various initiatives. A genuinely flexible –dare I say open?!– approach would be in everyone’s interest. And the vast majority of people I know would much rather expend that time, care, expertise on collaborative, positive labor rather than these endless requirements to respond. Put Arts and Humanities equally at the table. Put all sorts of research outputs on the table. Put equitable funding as a priority. All of us want better scholarship shared as widely as possible. So, email me! Looking forward to further conversation.

I like the idea of a new congress Glenn. How about Buenos Aires so it’s in the global south? But with all due respect, a lot of work would need to be done to repair fences before any meeting. A congress that brings together all of these different constituencies would require some very strong commitments beforehand to real openness to understanding the range of ways that publication works in different disciplines and national contexts, and a willingness to be accepting of a variety of ways of achieving the goal of broad access to scholarship. The history Karin and I have covered here is one of needing to repeat the same sets of concerns about these mandates, going back at least to 2013. My feeling is that this indicates little regard for disciplines that differ from big science. This not a history of scholarly communities (in which I include researchers, librarians, administrators, associations, publishers, and funders) working together to find better ways of spreading knowledge. It is a narrative of diktats that show little regard for the complexity of scholarly communication and not a lot of respect for how different models enable access. Apart from its potential to be profoundly damaging, I think Plan S in particular has elicited such strong reactions because people who care deeply about scholarship, access, and the exchange of knowledge are tired of being treated like they are barriers to progress. The adversarial nature of so much of what has happened in the past few years is one of the reasons for the outpouring reactions to Plan S. Finding a way to fix that needs to start well before any congress.

Again, an amusing text: Finally Glenn Hampson mentions Budapest, but this is the only reference here. What gives? My friend Peter Suber would not like that.

First, I agree that it is important to acknowledge the differences between SSH and STEM publishing landscapes and funding models as well as the challenge OA presents to academic publishers. I also agree that a challenge for historians and others in the humanities and social sciences is the sense that you are somehow giving up your intellectual property when articles, data sets, and survey instruments become freely available for others to read and analyze (but not free to plagiarize or use without attribution).

However, I want to note that there is widespread understanding that SSH scholars do not have the funds to pay APCs and that another model is needed. In the meantime, universities need to subsidize them as a temporary fix on the road to true OA publishing. Over time, there will likely be shifts in how universities spend budgets as library serial budgets will likely decrease (since they will need few subscriptions) but scholarly communications budgets increase to sustainably support OA journal publishing outside of the APC model. This new model may look more like models that are now the norm throughout America (except the US and Canada), where perhaps 80% of publishing in Latin America is Open Access, or like the deal that the University of California is currently trying to negotiate with Elsevier.

Meanwhile, the concern that people join their professional organizations for the journal subscriptions is legitimate, but I would challenge professional societies to urge scholars to join in order to support scholarship and scholarly exchange–including OA journals. If you are looking for models, the Latin American Studies Association recently flipped the Latin American Research Review to an APC-free OA model. This is in the interest of making sure that the very scholars you fear might not be able to publish under APC models–students, independent scholars, faculty at community college, and faculty in the developing world–have access to the intellectual conversation as consumers and as participants. Again, I would like to remind you that independent scholars do not frequently have access to subscription journals, nor do scholars at under-resourced institutions where the libraries cannot afford expensive subscriptions or databases.

Finally, I agree that the CC BY model is problematic; to me, any CC model short of CC BY-NC-SA is not in the spirit of Open Access. Specifics of licenses, however, are something that should still be up for discussion.

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